U.S. airlines expect to carry a record number of international travelers from June through August, helping soften the effect of higher fuel prices, the Air Transport Association said.
The 26.3 million international travelers forecast for the period would top last summer's record of 25.8 million by 1.9 percent, said the Washington-based association, which represents carriers including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines Inc., the dominant carrier serving Minnesota. Total passenger count will rise 1.5 percent, the group estimated.
"The airlines don't have the competition with the car or the bus when you're talking about trans-oceanic travel," John Heimlich, the association's chief economist, said on a conference call. Lower unemployment rates outside the U.S. will help bolster travel to other countries, he said.
The forecast shows carriers are optimistic about increasing demand even after raising surcharges and fares to counter higher fuel expenses. Association figures showed jet-fuel costs climbed 30 percent to $11.4 billion in the first quarter from the same period a year earlier.
U.S. unemployment, which advanced to 9 percent in April, also hasn't hurt business as much as the industry may have anticipated, according to Heimlich.
"Both segments, the business and the leisure, have probably held up better than the airlines might have expected, given the still relatively high unemployment rates," he said.
International visitors to the U.S. increased 3 percent in January, the 16th consecutive monthly increase, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, which posted the most recent data available on its website.
Visits from overseas increased 9 percent in January excluding Canada and Mexico, according to the data. Air arrivals from Canada rose 7 percent, while air visits from Mexico increased 2 percent, according to the department.
3 Million Passengers
U.S. airlines will carry 206.2 million passengers from June through August, up by 3 million from the same period in 2010, according to the association's forecast. Summer travel reached a record of 217.6 million in 2007.
Major carriers have already trimmed capacity-growth plans for the year and more cuts could come because of fuel costs, Heimlich said.
U.S. airlines' fuel tab for the year is forecast at $52 billion, the second-highest after 2008's $58 billion, Heimlich said.
"It's very hard to grow low-fare operations in particular at a time of rising and uncertain fuel prices," Heimlich said. "Just about every carrier has indicated they are open to further scalebacks should fuel prices rise again."